Mother's little helper

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 June, 2009, 12:00am

This Fiat Grande Punto is attracting glances from well-wheeled commuters in the mist of Magazine Gap Road. That is an achievement for a five-door family hatchback up here in Ferrari land, especially as it has arrived on The Peak about 700 mornings too late.

Fiat has been in and out of Hong Kong over the past two decades and only resumed its representation here last year, when local demand grew for the New 500. So having delivered 93 Nuova Cinquecentos to the city's chic, local dealers Auto Sportiva must now promote more of the Italian marque's range.

The Grande Punto's launch seems muted after the local buzz for the New 500, however. The dealer's colour-photocopied specification sheet doesn't mention that this runabout has won stacks of awards in Europe, from Germany's Golden Steering Wheel in 2005, Italy's Auto Europa prize, two years later, and Best City Car in France.

But Fiat has a long history of small-car production, from the Topolino of 1935, to the 600 in 1955, the original 500 two years later and a stream of 127s, Stradas, Pandas and Unos. The first Puntos replaced the Tipos in 1993, and became European Car of the Year in 1995.

Some baby Fiats earned the reputation overseas for being temperamental or flimsy, so the marque stepped up its safety. In 2006 the Grande Punto was launched after 15,000 hours of computer-aided design, 60 crash tests, 100 slide simulations and 200 component and sub-system tests, the marque says. This lab work culminated in a five-star safety rating in the European New Car Assessment Tests with three stars for child and another three for pedestrian safety with seven airbags, braking, traction and stability control and fire-prevention systems you might expect on larger cars.

The Grande Punto looks good on Stubbs Road on 15-inch wheels. The Fiat Styling Centre and ItalDesign gave the test car smooth lines, prominent headlamps and a deep front airdam with fog lights under a letter-box-like grille. The Grande Punto needs a bright red or blue finish to stand out among the big cars in Central, however. The model is also sold in silver and charcoal.

The Grand Punto's interior is said to be 'Mediterranean' but is about as neat as those of the Volvo C30 and Hyundai i30 or the Suzuki Swift. It's an airy if utilitarian ride for four people - not five as claimed - thanks to a 'skydome' sunroof and two glazed panels, the front one of which can be opened in seven seconds.

The seats are comfy and easily adjustable with adequate knee room at the back. The model's ergonomics are said to have been developed with the help of biometrics experts at the Bologna-based Coni Sport Medicine Institute, but there is little evidence of any electronic lumbar support in the test car's front seats. So the Nissan Tiida seems more plush, the Mini Cooper more spacious and the Opel Corsa more versatile in the idle of Happy Valley.

The boot is 275 litres with the back seats up and the hatch opens easily, but you have to lug stuff over its lip. The rear seats fold down for 1,030 litres of shopping or a spaniel and allow the stowage of valuables out of sight under a raised floor, the marque says. The Grande Punto is also fitted with 'follow-me-home' lights on the sidelights that can be set to stay on for up to 3?minutes, which is useful if you tend to step out into puddles in the dark.

The 1.4-litre, 77bhp block offers middle-lane zip to MacDonnell Road up Garden Road and the five-speed Duologic box changes as easily as the Toyota Yaris' and Suzuki Swift's. The suspension is solid but the steering is responsive enough through to Stubbs Road in 'City' mode. The Grande Punto's 10.6-metre turning circle and 'parkability' with rear sensors should please school-run mums.

There is some oomph in the block, if you look for it. The marque's claim for a 13.2-second sprint to 100km/h seems fair, if the promise of a 164km/h top speed seems academic in Jardine's Lookout. The marque says the car is economic on fuel, at 7.7 litres per 100km (54.3mpg) out of town and 5.2l/100km (46.3mpg) on combined runs. But the dealer's spec sheet does not mention - as the marque says in Europe - that the test car emits only 145 grams of carbon dioxide per km.

The Grande Punto's fine safety and basic comfort could also attract first-time and elderly drivers, but Hong Kong still seems a distant flag on the Fiat map. We have yet to see either of the marque's award-winning Panda and Bravo city cars - or indeed a colour brochure for the HK$179,800 Grande Punto. This runabout deserves more attention.

AT A GLANCE: Fiat Grande Punto

What drives it? A four-cylinder, 1,368cc engine with a five-speed Dualogic transmission, rack and pinion Dualdrive power steering.

How fast is it? The block belts 77bhp at 6,000rpm and 115Nm of torque at 3,000rpm. Sprints to 100km/h in 13.2 seconds and tops at 164km/h, the marque and dealer say.

How safe is it? You get six airbags, anti-lock braking and electronic brakeforce distribution, vehicle dynamic control, rear parking sensors, rear-door-child safety locks and Isofix attachment for child seats.

How thirsty is it? Drinks 7.7 litres per 100km (36.7mpg) in town and 5.2l/100km (54.3mpg) on highways on a 45-litre tank.

How clean is it? Spews 145 grams of carbon dioxide per km.

Available: HK$179,800 with a two-year warranty at Auto Sportiva (tel: 2877 8788 and 2305 1155); website: